I did dry January.
Many people do dry January! Many have before and many will again — as long as mankind enjoys sweet, delicious booze and cannot cure alcoholism.
This is my experience, my findings through researching my relationship with booze, as well as alcoholism, health and wellness, habit, heredity, happiness, survival, creativity, and storytelling. I am writing about it because that is always how I have connected the dots and built the narrative by which I live my life. I share my process in hopes of demystifying the experience of being alive for myself — and maybe for others, too.
This is a sensitive subject and I have no expertise to report beyond my experience. Nor do I possess an enlightened gospel to disseminate unto the liquor-sodden, life-saddened masses. I am not cured of any afflictions I may have — genetic, physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise — and I have not transcended my mortal form to a realm of pure, ultralight existence. Not yet, at least. I couldn’t do all that in a month.
What I did was not drink for a month.
When I was a kid, I was keenly aware of my dad’s drinking problem from the moment he taught me to use a bottle opener on an ice cold Beck’s beer he asked me to retrieve from a poolside cooler.
I grew up the son of divorced parents, lived with my mother, and spent Saturdays or Sundays with my father.
Shortly after my eleventh birthday, my dad was laid off from his job. From what I can recall through the haze of youth and other memory obscurers one may call “trauma,” unemployment did not break my dad. In fact, he saw it as a challenge, an opportunity for a reboot. After what I presume to be a near lifetime of drinking to various extremes, he decided to try sobriety.
I noticed a change in him immediately. I noticed a change in how I felt about him, too.
Beforehand, I always sensed that his relationship with alcohol made for a volatility in his behavior that was dangerous to me. I couldn’t love him as fully as I wanted to because I feared him.
When he was sober, I felt that tension dissipate and I let myself lean into loving my father. I relished the time I spent with him and chose to spend more in his company. I was delighted to experience his summer of sobriety and sensed a prosperity in which our relationship could flourish like never before.
During one of my weekend visits with my dad, we made a family trip to Costco. He had remarried; I had a stepmother, stepbrother, and half brother. Upon our arrival to Costco, my dad dropped off my stepmother and the other boys at the store entrance. I remained with him to park the car.
“Mike,” he said in his warm, husky tone, “you know you’re my number one son, yeah?”
“Sure I do. I came first.”
“You’re my first born. You’ll always be my number one son.”
“I’m glad, dad,” I replied, modest as the amount of time I spent with him in comparison to his two other boys.
We parked the car and began the trek from the rear of the sea-sized parking lot to the store entrance. We fell into a comfortable silence as the summer sun beat down on us both. My dad was a heavy man, so he broke a sweat but didn’t complain. Nor did I when he reached out his large, tattooed, clammy hand to hold my own. He bent slightly to accommodate our difference in height, and we awkwardly, affectionately ambled towards the wholesale warehouse in step together.
Shortly before we finally reached the entrance, my dad spoke again.
“I got good news, Mike…”
I looked up to him, smiling. He beamed in return, his teeth yellowed from years of smoking Newport Lights.
“I’m off the wagon,” he offered.
My smile faded as I cycled through cultural reference points that helped me understand the euphemism.
I knew the answer, but still I asked, “what do you mean, dad?”
“Your old man is drinking again!” he exclaimed, the announcement coming from some uncanny valley between celebration and shame.
“Oh…!” I responded.
We let go of each other’s hands. I wiped my damp palm on my pants leg. I followed behind my dad as we entered the store, found his family, and went about his life.
That night, my dad got drunk enough for me to feel uncomfortable. His volatility brought a sense of danger, and my fear threw me far from the love I had begun to explore.
We had planned for me to stay over, but I no longer wanted to. I called my mother and asked her to come and pick me up; I told her I didn’t feel well and wanted to come home. She obliged without hesitation and began the forty minute drive to my dad’s.
When I let my him know that I would be leaving, he became very upset. In what I now recognize as a response wrought from his own shame, he teased and taunted me for betraying him. I became sick. I do not remember much of our forty minutes waiting for my mother to pick me up, but I know they count among the most painful of my life. I felt my relationship with my father tearing apart; we could never and would never be the same.
That night was the last I ever saw my dad. He passed in October 2016. We eventually reconnected and shared positive, loving words of forgiveness and forward motion, but we never met to truly mend our relationship. After that summer of short-lived sobriety, I never again felt like I was his number one son.
I didn’t drink in high school, though I had friends who did and cast no judgement on them for it. I resented alcohol because of my experience with my father’s disease and I owned that — proudly, even.
I knew I one day would discover alcohol, but I always told friends I needed to do so on my own terms and in my own time. I was aware that my relationship with it was somewhat predetermined for me before I could even experience it. So, I feared it and its power, which I witnessed firsthand and formatively through my childhood.
I had my first drink at the holiday party for the theatre company at which I worked in my senior year of high school. Having a vodka soda so with my older colleagues, all hyper-literate hipster Brooklynites in their mid-twenties, was a transcendent moment of coming-of-age for me. To drink with them was to be socially included in a world to which I so wished to belong. It crystallized my hopes and dreams to be in the theatre — around the arts, creating and discussing all the beautiful and inspiring things being made by and beside us.
I called my best friend Elissa that night and to give her a fizzy firsthand report of my first dance with mild drunkenness.
She expressed immediate concern, asking me, “are you sure you feel okay about it?”
“Absolutely! Yes, yes, yes. This was the best possible way to dip my toe in the pool and it makes an incredible story and I am so so happy! I didn’t even think of my dad. This is entirely my choice and it was easy and it is such a relief to finally take the weight of that whole thing off my shoulders.”
I felt like I conquered something that stood in my path towards growing up. Victorious, I bounded the streets and avenues of Manhattan on foot, all the way from the West Village to Port Authority in Midtown for my bus back home to North Jersey.
On my way, I bought a pack of gum to ensure I had eliminated any trace of booze from my breath. I performed my experience of my first drink perfectly!
As the year progressed, I enjoyed drinking socially at parties around prom and graduation and beyond. I enjoyed my last summer before college and had fun with dear friends. I didn’t think twice of it.
I went to college and did just the same, relishing the memories it seemed we could only make when three sheets to the wind. Social barriers fell most easily over nights out, and before long, my conservatory classmates became family, complete with myriad tales of each other’s embarrassment that created a strange and intricate sense of intimacy.
I, too, was a natural host. I loved having my friends over to my large dorm suite for Friday night free-pour free-for-all’s. It felt like I was piloting me and my friends towards the dream I saw crystallize at that theatre company holiday party not long before. I felt I was in control of our being out-of-control.
During my freshman year of conservatory training, I connected with my body significantly for the first time in movement class. I grew up overweight and out of shape, chubby from enjoying indulgence in delicious savory meals and the sedentary comforts of a suburban lifestyle. And now — working through a curriculum of yoga, clown, and dance — I wanted to work with and engage my body, stretch it to and beyond its limits, where I found I could discover such pleasure.
The summer after my freshman year, with this desire in tow, I went back home to North Jersey and endeavored to get fit. What that meant at the time was exercising, eating mindfully, and cutting out all booze to enhance the process.
When I reached my goals, I went back to school and returned to what I relished and romanticized as textbook-definition youthful debauchery. It never impeded my studies, and my youth saved me from much of the physical consequence it could bring.
Drinking became part of the fabric of my life and I wore it well. In fact, it was one of my favorite outfits! I wore it all through college as the life of the party. I wore it into my early adulthood to dress for the life I wanted, if not the life I had. I wore it through good times to celebrate. I wore it through bad times to console myself.
I think I wore it out.
The two and a half months I spent sober after my freshman year were the last I would spend sober for roughly six years. They were also the last I lived in my childhood home; as an adult, I drank.
I forgot what it felt like to not drink, or plan to drink, or recover from drinking, or consider how I drank, so on and so forth. As far as I know, and I’m no expert, but that is indeed something like alcoholism.
I learned that through my dry January.
So, I have alcoholism. Ultimately, that is a relief to crystallize — much like my dream of a future life in the theatre was nearly a decade ago. There is comfort in certitude, and there is agency in awareness.
Late last year, in between Christmas and New Years, I spent some time bounding the streets and avenues of Manhattan on foot, between drinking and feeling hungover. The romance of my first time drunk had all but faded.
I reflected on my holidays. For many, the season is perfect storm of accessible booze, stationary suburbia, and… Reasons to Drink. Some of us have large, extended Reasons to Drink that come from far and wide. Some of us have smaller, more nuclear Reasons to Drink that keep close. Regardless, we all have Reasons to Drink, and many of us love them.
I often feel my Reasons to Drink deeply. This has led me to preempt their approach with… more drinking, earlier drinking.
This Christmas, as I was pouring myself a midday martini, I recognized through my first sips that I was self-medicating anxiety. I filed that away for later and enjoyed that drink and many others. I enjoyed my holiday.
Walking around New York City in days that followed, it was that thought which returned to me and not the romance of experiencing Manhattan drunk.
I felt the cumulative weight of all my hangovers past. I was troubled by them; I was troubled, even, by how well I managed them. I recalled the various natural supplements, electrolyte-enhanced beverages, pills and potions that I employed liberally, first thing in the morning after a night spent drinking, self-medicating. And they worked — some days better than others, but they worked!
That is fairly high functioning alcoholism. And for me, my high functioning alcoholism has revealed itself to be an endless and vicious cycle of self-medicating my self-medicating. I’d wake up in the morning and take two advil and drink a liter of electrolyte water to escape the pain of a hangover. The night before, I poured myself several drinks to escape the pain of the day passed.
My 2018 came to a close with much reflection and much celebration. I had an extraordinary year. I acted in four wonderful productions that changed me and taught me much about my craft and career desires. I saw my mother remarry. I deepened my relationship with my partner. I traveled to beautiful places that took my breath away and inspired me beyond my imagination. I lived a beautiful year rich with pleasure and joy.
I asked myself, then: what pain did I really need to escape in drink? What presence was I desperately avoiding while drunk?
Before the year ended, I vowed to myself and my partner that I’d endeavor the experiment of dry January to attempt answering these questions.
Well, my research yielded findings aplenty.
First and foremost, I think back to the formative pain of my last night with my dad, the trauma I felt as I tore myself from him. I have never wanted to feel that pain, or anything like it, ever again. I am too sensitive for that.
I have lived my life in a fear response to that very trauma. Fortunately, my research has made me privy to the wild irony that the very thing that caused that trauma — alcoholism — led me directly to the heart of it as an adult. I just had to experience it and understand it for myself, and so I did!
It has been nearly fifteen years since that night. Sure, time is an illusion and a social construct and a flat circle — whatever. To that, I say life is a highway, and if you try to ride it drunk, you’re looking at one of two outcomes. Best case scenario, you annoy the person kind enough to drive your mess around, and they kick you out of the car in the middle of nowhere. Worst case scenario, you’re asleep behind the wheel and you cause yourself harm ranging from arrest and license revoking to death.
It has been nearly fifteen years since that night, and in that time, I have seen so many incredible things on my highway. I’ve been fortunate enough to witness them in the moments I’ve driven sober or with a caring, patient driver at my side. I’ve learned all those incredible things are wrought from love, not fear. I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it; it has been proven to me. Therefore, I can learn to trust it.
I can lean away from fear and into loving my life much like I did my father in his summer of sobriety. I can pick up where he left off and see the opportunities he sensed to fruition. I can honor his understandable failure by continuing to try.
Many of our cultures make much of the sins of the father and how we are all doomed to repeat them. I call bullshit! That notion has the same root logic as that behind every reheated reboot shoved down our throats by lazy old-guard media executives who have yet to realize that there are so many more stories to tell. We don’t need Roseanne! Look how that turned out!
Harvard philosopher George Santayana coined the popular aphorism, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It reads as more doom-mongering over sins that stain our history. This quote is often mis-attributed to Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke, who actually said, ”people will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” And that’s more like it.
Can we learn from all that went wrong to guide us towards all that is right and bright and full of light and joy?
I believe so. I must believe so.
I did not drink for a month.
I very well may drink again. If I do, I believe I will do so no longer thinking it a cure-all for what ails me or an essential and excusable part of my adult life.
In the meantime, I am going to remain sober as I continue to unpack and process all that the experience affords me. Sometimes I have fear and sometimes I feel pain, but love gives me faith it will pass. That has helped me find presence with the pleasure of my life and all the love inherent as best I can.
Cheers to that.